Kyle Schwarber must stop leading off … for everybody's sake

Sorry, Babe, but Kyle Schwarber leading off for the Cubs looks like it was a bad idea.

The guy Chicago built up to Ruthian proportions woke up Monday hitting a Mendoza-like .179 for a team struggling to score. And the Cubs offense will continue to struggle if they keep a hitter slumping that badly at the top of the order.

You don't need to consult your favorite analytics website to project that. You don't need to be a sports psychologist to observe a 24-year-old athlete notoriously tough on himself pressing at the plate. You can't deny that, for Schwarber's own good, immediately moving the left-handed slugger down in the order makes sense before the options include sending him down to Triple-A Iowa to regain his batting eye.

We used to marvel at the majestic home runs Schwarber hit. On Sunday in St. Louis, as the 18-19 Cubs lost their third straight series, Joe Maddon was reduced to raving about the great swings Schwarber showed fouling the ball straight back. Did you guys see the way that one ricocheted off the screen? It has come to that, dissecting Schwarber's good strikes. Schwarbombs have been few and far between, replaced by too many swing-and-misfires.

Yet for reasons that escape many of us who dare question the method behind all this Maddon-ness, the Cubs manager keeps writing Schwarber's name at the top of the order. Consider Schwarber, 0 for his last 14, owns the major leagues' lowest batting average among leadoff hitters with at least 100 plate appearances. He has a .313 on-base percentage with 44 strikeouts. His body language screams help, yet the Cubs see and hear no evil.

Alas, the longer the forced leadoff experiment goes on, the more it seems as radical as Maddon's suggestion for mandatory cup checks and on-deck circle cages.

A manager who brought the Cubs a World Series title has enough baseball equity in town to acknowledge the Schwarber misjudgment and move on. Only 37 games into this season, Maddon easily could chalk it up to something he had to try with a roster lacking an obvious leadoff solution. Give the innovative Maddon credit for the ingenuity necessary to execute such an unorthodox plan, but nobody would blame him for adjusting now.

Refusing to do so only creates a perception of Maddon insistent on proving he is the smartest guy in the room. Would installing another Cub in the leadoff spot be a bigger blow to Schwarber's ego or Maddon's?

Those who oppose replacing Schwarber often mention that the Cubs lack a viable leadoff alternative. That the front office never really replaced Dexter Fowler, Mr. You-Go, We-Go who went to the Cardinals for more money. That's a valid point, potentially exposing one of the few misreads Cubs President Theo Epstein has made.

But given the deep roster Maddon has to work with, the center-field platoon of Albert Almora and Jon Jay — whose on-base percentage is .405 — still represents better options than a struggling Schwarber. So would Ben Zobrist. Is a resurgent Jason Heyward any crazier of a thought than Schwarber?

As for Schwarber, he needs to bat sixth or seventh until comfortably getting in the groove again. He needs to go back to what worked when he resembled a dangerous middle-of-the-order run producer worthy of all the national hype. He needs to stop making all those glowing stories read like fiction in retrospect and start doing more than hit impressive foul balls. He needs to quit making Cubs fans of a certain age Google the name Brooks Kieschnick. (Look him up, millennials.)

With shaky starting pitching, the Cubs can't afford to wait indefinitely until Schwarber figures it out. The calendar isn't stuck on 2016, even though so many minds in town still are. The Schwarber who became a World Series legend has been mostly myth so far. The thinking on Schwarber must change, from the press box to the bleachers to the dugout.

Switch-hitting outfielder Ian Happ, the 2015 first-round pick who made a strong debut in St. Louis, could receive playing time at Schwarber's expense if the slump continues. And if Schwarber can't snap out of it, a rejuvenating trip to the minors must remain an option — despite his stature. The psyche of one of the Cubs' most mentally tough players can take it.

The Royals sent down third baseman Mike Moustakas, a former No. 2 pick, for eight games in 2014 when he started out hitting .152 — and he was an All-Star in 2015. The Dodgers demoted outfielder Yasiel Puig to Triple-A Oklahoma City for 19 games last August, and Puig returned to be a factor in the playoffs.

Nobody suggests dangling Schwarber as trade bait, a premature overreaction for a cornerstone player. Nobody necessarily wants to dwell on Schwarber's adequate-at-best defense, which the Cubs can tolerate if he hits. But if a young Cubs outfielder with 106 games of major-league experience and a career .219 batting average were named Jack Jones, his present shortcomings would outweigh any past success and demand action.

The name Kyle Schwarber always will own a special place in Cubs history. That should guarantee nothing about Schwarber's future, which still can include leading the Cubs — just not leading off.

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